Scariest female monster ever? Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed

When I started this Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies featuring Female Monsters, I was pretty sure I’d be seeing a lot of cheesy films as I explored the dirty underworld of how filmmakers associated women with monstrousness. But the subject matter has taken over — the more I explore, the more seriously I view these films’ underlying themes. Oh sure, it’s all fun and games to talk about the Bitchez From Outer Space subgroup, or those Crazy Science Experiment Ladies (The Wasp Woman, Mesa of Lost Women, etc.), or about how these films invariably show women doing the Evil Sexy Dance of Death to lure men to their doom. But then I uncovered this rich vein of My Mother Made Me a Monster films.

Curiously, these are undeniably better films than the aforementioned cheese. (Why? Please send answers!) Rather than imagine Sex In Space or answer questions about what would happen if you injected women with wasp venom, Mother/Monster films raise questions about whether nature is destiny — whether an evil mother inevitably produces demonic qualities in her child, and whether even a good mother is to blame for producing a monster. From Cat People (1942) to The Bad Seed (1956) and eventually Carrie (1976), a whole genre of cult horror films swirl around mother-hating or mother’s guilt to produce an exceptionally riveting set of questions.


The most claustrophobic of all cult films is surely The Bad Seed, 95% of which takes place in that awful middle-class 1950s apartment inhabited by the Penmarks and their super-perfect 8-yr-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack). Rhoda’s pigtails are always neat, her shoes never scuffed, and her dresses always as girly as possible.

Let this be a lesson to all of you who complain that your daughters are slobs: thank your lucky stars, for it doubtless means your daughters are normal.

Is Rhoda just a nasty little piece of work? Oh no, friends. She is a bad seed (or, in the parlance of our day, a psychopath). She acts all sweet and treacly, but then get her on the topic of why she didn’t win the school medal for penmanship, and you see a little monster come through. So much of a monster, in fact, that she murders the prizewinner, takes his medal for herself, and expresses no remorse.

Told through the eyes of Rhoda’s mother Christine (Nancy Kelly), we find ourselves trapped in that insidious, nightmare-inducing space of that apartment (yes, this was originally a stage play) — sympathizing with and yet infuriated by Christine’s passivity and mother love for a monster of epic proportions.

Christine’s suspicions about her daughter lead her to delve into her own past. She has always suspected she was adopted — and after pressing hard on her father, she learns the truth: her own mother was a psychotic murderer, and only by fluke did the 2-yr-old Christine end up with loving adoptive parents. But this means, of course, that unwittingly she has given birth to a Bad Seed (and that it’s genetic). Now that she knows she’s responsible for passing this gene along to her daughter, what will Christine do about it? If someone is to be punished, is it the mother or the psychotic, manipulative child?

Needless to say, The Bad Seed could be paired with We Need to Talk About Kevin for one of the most disturbing double features ever. (Who would come to such a double feature?) These films also seem to confirm the notion that even very young children can be psychopaths (that recent NY Times article even discusses the fact that the public inevitably blames mothers for having psychotic children).


A similar set of questions undergirds Jacques Tourneur’s excellent Cat People, which might be the best horror qua noir film ever. It all starts out so innocently, with guileless Oliver flirting with that fetching girl at the zoo. She turns out to be Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian immigrant and fashion designer who harbors an eccentric fascination for the big cats in their cages — even more eccentric than most, considering that we find out that her drawings show the panthers speared through the heart with a sword.

Fast forward to love and marriage (and I mean fast), and suddenly we have a problem: Irena fears she has inherited the evil taint of her Serbian village’s devil-worshiping past, and that she is a Cat Person. Is it possible? or is it all in her pretty little head? Naturally, Oliver is inclined to believe the latter, and signs her up for visits to psychiatrist Dr. Judd.

But Irena doubts the answer is so simple. She’s haunted by fears and dreams. What about the fact that her father died so young, so mysteriously — and that they accused her mother of being a Cat Person, responsible for his death?

She’s always kept people at a distance, but breaks down her defenses because she loves Oliver so much. Still, on their wedding night, as she sits in the restaurant with a wedding party, a strange, ominous-looking woman (with the best 1940s up-do) stares at her from across the room. “Look at that woman,” says one of her guests. “She looks like a cat,” another guest responds. The woman approaches and speaks to Irena, repeatedly, in Serbian. Irena crosses herself and looks terrified.

“What did that woman say to you, darling?” Oliver asks after the woman leaves. “She greeted me,” Irena replies. “She called me sister.”

One of the many things Irena learned growing up was that she must avoid growing angry or jealous, for those heightened emotions will bring out the evil inside her. Let’s pause for a moment to let that sink in: if she gets jealous or angry, she becomes a murderous, vengeful panther who stalks and kills those responsible. This makes Bitchez From Space look mild in comparison.

So Irena determines the best response is to keep Oliver at a distance: they sleep separately. Which places such pressure on the marriage that Irena begins to suspect — correctly — that Oliver and his work pal Alice have fallen in love with each other. When Irena sees the two of them together in a restaurant late one night, she knows the truth — and thus begins some terrific horror/noir sequences in which Alice is hunted by a big cat through lonely city streets, and Irena is haunted by (animated) dreams of cats staring at her, surrounding her. It’s all so distressing that we see her, crying by herself at her alienation in the bath.

There’s so much to say about this film — about the confusion over the protagonist (Oliver is decidedly not sympathetic; both Irena and Alice are, yet they wind up in a cat-and-mouse game against one another), the beautiful filming, that terrific animated sequence of cats:

But let’s stay focused on the My Mother Made Me a Monster theme, which obtains throughout this film and becomes even more prominent in the (weak) sequel, Curse of the Cat People (1944), which is all about fraught relationships between mothers and daughters. No wonder Irena fears sex and love with Oliver: it makes a woman unpredictable, dangerous, even one as sweet as Irena. No wonder that in the sequel, mothers and daughters are far more at war.


And finally there’s Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel, a film that encapsulates so much of the horror of pubescence and high school that I’m tempted to term King a genius. The opening sequence alone is a brilliant piece of horror/ porn all packaged up in a wrapper of female trouble. A pointedly anodyne musak tune plays while the opening credits move us through a high school girls’ locker room as the girls dress and horse around. As we gradually move toward more full-frontal nudity and the steam of the showers, we find Carrie (Sissy Spacek) luxuriating alone in the hot water, all soft-focus and slow motion — eyes closed, hand running a bar of soap all over herself slowly, pleasurably.

Then she starts to bleed — she’s started her period — but not knowing anything about menstruation, she starts to scream and beg the other girls for help. Being typically unsympathetic high school girls, they taunt her, smack at her, and throw tampons at her until she cowers, naked, bloody, and dripping, in a corner of the shower.

When she gets home, she tries explain to her domineering, religious fanatic of a mother (Piper Laurie), “Why didn’t you tell me, Mamma?” Her mother hits her over the head with a biblical tract and has only one thing to say:

Mamma, reading aloud: And God made Eve from the rib of Adam. And Eve was weak and loosed the raven on the world. And the raven was called sin. Say it: the raven was called sin! 
Carrie: Why didn’t you tell me, Mamma? 
Mamma: Say it. [hits Carrie in the face with her tract] The raven was called sin. [hit her again]
Carrie: No, Mamma. [gets hit yet again, finally relents] And the raven was called sin! 
Mamma: And the first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. 
Carrie: I didn’t sin, Mamma. 
Mamma: Say it. [hits her again
Carrie: I didn’t sin, Mamma! 
Mamma: The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. 
Carrie: And the first sin was intercourse! Mamma, I was so scared. I thought I was dying. And the girls, they all laughed at me and threw things at me, Mamma. 
Mamma hits her again: And Eve was weak! say it! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Eve was weak! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Eve was weak! Say it, woman! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Say it! 
Carrie: Eve was weak, Eve was weak. 
Mamma: And the Lord visited Eve with the curse, and the curse was the curse of blood! 
Carrie: You should have told me, Mamma! You should have told me! 
Mamma kneels down and takes Carrie’s hand: Oh, Lord! Help this sinning woman see the sin of her days and ways. Show her that if she had remained sinless, this curse of blood would never have come on her! 

Then, of course, her mother locks her in a closet with the most terrifying Jesus-on-the-cross figure ever. I mean, come on — is this not the creepiest horror scene you can imagine? And this is long before the pig’s blood starts flying!

The film never tells us whether having to deal with such an insane mother was the trigger that initiated Carrie’s gift of telekinesis. But it’s clear that Carrie’s extreme social withdrawal is the result of such mothering. She’s so withdrawn that the other kids at school find her an easy joke, a target. Her mother keeps her so naive that she doesn’t know about menstruation, after all.

And her mother displays a fear of men and an antipathy to sex that colors everything her daughter does. When Carrie decides to go to the prom with hunky Tommy (William Katt), her mother prays desperately, ecstatically, in that awful attic room while Carrie makes her own dress.

“I should have killed myself when he put it in me,” Carrie’s mother says late in the film, as she explains that Carrie is the product of her own sin. Does it matter that this comes from the fevered imagination of a crazy woman? What we do know is that Carrie and her mother ultimately go down together, locked in a strange reverse-maternal embrace, as the creepy eyes of the Jesus figurine look on.


My mother made me a monster. It’s a theme that has been the source of much cheesier filmic material than in these three films (see for example She-Wolf of London [1946] and Cobra Woman [1944]) but isn’t this theme more interesting when done well?

I think it’s appropriate that I end this Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies about Female Monsters on this note — after watching three films that problematize femininity via that scary mother-daughter bond, via questions about nature, nurture, Jesus and the Devil. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when Hollywood created female monsters, its writers and directors tried to work out their own crazy, stereotyped and contradictory ideas about women along the way.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling awfully grateful for the mother I have — a woman I’m going to see tomorrow, and who’s promised yet another couple of days of relaxation in her beautiful garden. And I’m going to remind her how lucky she is to have a daughter who had a messy room for all those years.

Alert reader and fellow Space Bitch JE is keeping me on track with my Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Films about Female Monsters — at least insofar as she sends me the best YouTube snippets ever. Witness this classic Mexican film from the prolific El Santo franchise. In this one, a professor recruits the heroic wrestler El Santo (“The Saint”) to protect the professor’s daughter from being kidnapped by evil female vampires who intend to marry the innocent girl to the Devil.

But why am I telling you the plot? If we’ve learned anything from these Cult Films About Female Monsters, it’s that the storylines are the flimsy bits that get us ricocheting between sexy wackiness and scary titillation. To wit, this scene in which las mujeres vampiro demonstrate how to take a nasty, crackle-skinned vampiro and transform her into a 1960s sexpot:

And if that’s not enough to get you leapfrogging through the full-length film (available in chapters on YouTube), here’s a handmade trailer for it made by a diehard fan:

Some might say, “I watch this and feel brain cells dying in my head.” But I say, this film is extra-appealing because of the sequel, Santo en la venganza de las mujeres vampiro (1970; no translation necessary, right?). And did I mention Santo en la casa de las brujas (1964, or El Santo in the Witches’ House)? That’s what I’m talking about.

Space Bitchez talk back

20 April 2012

“I keep wondering what she’s thinking,” says Paul (Dennis Hopper), one of the astronauts who has discovered the strange green-skinned being from another planet in Queen of Blood (1966). Paul gazes into her green face, which is transfixed with an otherworldly, sphinxlike smile. Needless to say, Paul will not last much longer.

Paul (Dennis Hopper) is riveted by the silent, smiling Queen of Blood ... for a while

Oh, you foolish human mortals. In offering you this letter, we break our most sacred vow, which is to prevent you from learning of our existence. Whenever we watch one of your Hollywood films and someone says, “The universe is so vast that there must be more intelligent life out there,” everyone on our planet laughs hilariously. In fact, this line is a part of many movie-oriented drinking games on our planet. We find it delightful that you people are always congratulating yourselves on your “intelligence” yet can’t figure out that so many of us are hiding from you.

Despite our eagerness to remain hidden from you, we have recently caught up on one of your more bizarre film sub-genres and find ourselves unusually eager to set the record straight. Although these cheesy horror films about female monsters have spawned new and riotous drinking games, we would like to hope that our news might spur new advances in thinking among your kind.

The Queen of Blood gazes hungrily on the human males who may or may not become her next victims

Here’s the thing: films like Queen of Blood (1966), Devil Girl from Mars (1954), Queen of Outer Space (1958), and Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) each seem to believe that all us fine interstellar women are solely interested in rounding up some human men to eat and/or use as breeding stock. Let us offer a few comments.

First there are the plot elements that transform us into Space Bitchez to titillate human men. Honestly. As you read these, tell me whether you can actually begin to hear yourselves when you write this horseshit.

  • Space Bitchez come from a planet where gender relations have gone terribly wrong when the women took over.
  • Space Bitchez always have strange hypnotic powers over human males.
  • Sometimes Space Bitchez also have hypnotic powers over human females, whom they manipulate to get at the human males.
  • Space Bitchez always wear tight cat suits/ leather/ sexy flowing gowns. In Queen of Outer Space, Zsa Zsa Gabor insists on wearing slits up the side of every single one of her dresses, which makes us want to hurt someone.

There is no relationship whatsoever between Zsa Zsa's dresses and her half-witted decision to fall in love with one of these idiotic human males in Queen of Outer Space.

  • Space Bitchez utilize a sexy, compelling dance number to seduce the males.
  • Space Bitchez have all manner of advanced technology – space ships, Death Rays, lasers to shoot other people’s ships out of the sky – but can apparently come up with no substitute for human males.
  • At least a few of the Space Bitchez are susceptible to falling in love with one or two of the human males. (The rules of our planet’s drinking game demand that you drink twice upon witnessing this plot element.)
  • Despite the superiority of the Space Bitchez, the majority of human males always manage to escape unharmed in the end in their tar-paper rocket ships.

Ugh. It’s exhausting. Where does one even begin? It makes me want to fondle my Death Ray Laser Gun, which has a hair-trigger mechanism….

Human males overcome these badass Space Bitchez who serve the Queen of Outer Space in yet another highly unrealistic human male fantasy of superiority and desirability.

Let’s start with the fantasy that awesome women from space need or even want human males. Aside from the question of whether you could be any more obvious in your fantasy life, let’s just note that human men are almost as pathetic as lovers as they are as scientists. Possessing our superior intelligences means never having to say the words, “If only I had a human male to impregnate me/ find me attractive.” I can’t tell you the number of jokes we have about how many men it takes to stimulate a Space Bitch’s erogenous zone – needless to say, these jokes are hilarious.

Zsa Zsa leads the human males and then, inexplicably, pretends to let THEM save HER

Just remember this scene from Queen of Blood, in which astronauts Alan and Laura discuss the mysterious deaths of two of their colleagues:

Allan:  He didn’t fall asleep — I’m convinced of that now! And I don’t think Paul did either. She does something — hypnosis — some strange mental power that we don’t have. I’ve sensed it from the beginning — it’s deadly.

Laura:  I’m really afraid now, for the first time.

Space Bitchez do a facepalm. Are you people serious?

The Cat Women of the Moon wear unitards, which in our opinion is a strange choice among Space Bitchez

You may wonder how we know so much about human males’ sex skills. Surprising numbers of them find ways of offering themselves up to us as willing slaves; they occasionally show up on our planets, stow away on our ships, or fake emergency distress calls to find us. No matter how badly we treat them, they won’t go away.

The Cat Women engage in their regularly-scheduled Sexy Dance for the benefit of their human male invaders

Can I be any more clear? We don’t need hypnosis, sexy outfits, a sexy Dance Of Death to win you over. Not only do we have terrific sex lives on our own, but we procreate effortlessly without you. Our political economies don’t require men to function smoothly. Dialogue like this from Devil Girl From Mars is so wrong on so many levels that all we can do is drink. Here, the evil, leather-clad Nyah has come to Earth to round up some men as breeding stock:

Oh Nyah, how do you sleep at night after appearing in Devil Girl From Mars? Was it the leather outfit?

Nyah: Many years ago, our women were similar to your today. Our emancipation took several hundred years and ended in a bitter, devastating war between the sexes. The last war we ever had. …After the war of the sexes women became the rulers of Mars, and now the male has fallen into a decline. The birthrate is falling tremendously. For despite our advanced science, we have still found no way of creating life.

Ellen: So you’ve come here for new blood.

Nyah: In a way.

Okay, okay – we get it. We know these films help make you human males feel better about your pathetic space skills and low levels of desirability by imagining that there are Space Sexpots out there who want your loins. We know these films helped to undergird the gender inequalities in your culture by demonizing powerful women as Space Bitchez.

Would a real Cat Woman of the Moon really allow herself to fall in love with some human dork named Kip or Laird? I think not.

But we can also see there are chinks in your argument – that a few of your human males and females are starting to take off your blinders. And so we conclude with one of your own poets, Billy Collins, who frames it all quite nicely – perhaps even better than we could have done ourselves. (Collins, you are always welcome to visit space.)

All you have to do is listen to the way a man
sometimes talks to his wife at a table of people
and notice how intent he is on making his point
even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver,
and you will know why the women in science
fiction movies who inhabit a planet of their own
are not pictured making a salad or reading a magazine
when the men from earth arrive in their rocket,

why they are always standing in a semicircle
with their arms folded, their bare legs set apart,
their breasts protected by hard metal disks.

–Billy Collins, “Man in Space,” 1995

This piece was jointly written with fellow Space Bitch JE, who watched a lot of movies with me and knew about Billy Collins (by heart).

According to Roger Corman’s classic cult film The Wasp Woman, the first in my mini-marathon of Cult Horror Movies about Female Monsters, we should be worried about two things: women’s fear of aging (who doesn’t know that?) and science (again, duh). Early on, the experimental scientist Dr. Zinthrop tries to explain to his boss that he thinks he has found a miracle anti-aging drug in the royal jelly of queen wasps. The man replies:

“Listen, Zinthrop, I understand about science, and progress, and all that, but you were obtained to extract queen bee royal jelly. Now, it’s a health food! A cosmetic! It’s not a miracle drug or an elixir of youth! That sort of thing is impossible!”

Oh, Zinthrop, why didn’t you listen?

Like any good would-be mad scientist, he heads for New York City — where cosmetics magnate Janice Starlin is meeting with her team to talk about why the company’s profits have taken such a nosedive. Why? one brave marketing douchebag asks mockingly — because you, Janice, have gotten old. Her haggard face makes the whole company look bad. Who wouldn’t agree with those lines and the bags under her eyes? horrors! and I haven’t even shown you an image of her terrible glasses!

Don’t get the wrong impression: as unflattering as that screen shot is, Janice Starlin is no bitch. Now, I’m relatively new to the genre of female monsters, but it seems to me that ultimately these films address what we might call the Bitch Semiotic, in honor of the classic Sigourney Weaver line in Aliens: “Get away from her, you bitch!” delivered to the gigantic alien monster mother. Film monster women might have many reasons to be bitchy, and many manifestations of their bitchiness. Janice, in contrast, is merely tragic — tragically desirous of a more youthful appearance.

She tries to explain Zinthrop’s wasp jelly plan to a member of her company’s marketing team named Cooper, but he won’t have any of it. In fact, he’s a font of condescending and questionable entomological wisdom:

“I’d stay away from wasps if I were you, Miss Starlin. Socially, the queen wasp is on a level with the black widow spider. They’re both carnivorous, they paralyze their victims and take their time devouring them alive. They kill their mates in the same way, too. Strictly a one-sided romance!” [har, har.]

With bad jokes like that, I could hardly wait till Cooper’s own foreshadowing did him in.

Naturally, Janice arranges with Zinthrop for secret injections of the wasp serum — in deliciously perverse needle scenes set in classic Hollywood laboratories. Naturally, when the reverse aging process doesn’t proceed as rapidly as she’d hoped, she sneaks into the lab and injects herself with more. Naturally, someone says (prophetically), “Cosmetics are one thing. Medication is another.” And naturally, Zinthrop’s experiments weren’t thorough enough to show the dangerous side effects:

But my favorite is the great line, muttered amongst some company employees baffled by the mysterious changes to company policies: “It’s not funny any more, Mary. There’s something going on in that building — [dramatic pause] — and I’m gonna find out what it is.” Screenwriters of yore, where have you gone? Why can’t we enjoy scintillating, literary subtlety as in days gone by?

Don’t get me wrong — there are many things to recommend The Wasp Woman: 1) it’s only 73 minutes long; 2) it’s streaming on YouTube and as well as Netflix; and 3) in refusing to engage with the Bitch Semiotic, this film allows its star, Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) to appear so genuinely appealing that she actually subverts the plot a little bit.

You’d think this would devolve into a simple tale of a woman driven mad (and carnivorous, and murderous of her mates) by her need to appear younger-looking — heaven knows that’s what all of Cooper’s foreshadowing indicated. But in matter of fact she’s surprisingly touching. It’s hard to hate her when she prances into the office one morning looking to-die-for gorgeous. She asks her secretary how old she looks. 23? the secretary guesses. Maybe 22? at which Janice looks wistful, for that’s the age at which she started her cosmetics company — 18 years ago. (Yes: that means she’s 40 years old!) The film doesn’t demand that her delight in looking young would itself make her a monster of vanity, or a killer of more beautiful women, like the evil Queen in Snow White who stands in front of her mirror all the time. (Are there really two Snow White films coming out this year? Groan.)

I started this marathon of cult horror films not just because I love cult films and need more excuses to see them, but because I think the subject of female monsters seems rich with interpretive possibility. It seems to me there are at least two primary questions that help us assess the genre: what causes their monstrosity? and, what does their monstrosity make them do to the other characters, aka men?

I’m willing to guess that most female movie monsters are driven to their monstrosity by singularly female traits. Whether it’s their desperate desire to be beautiful, their overpowering sexual drive, their crazed dementia after being dumped by a man, or (as in Aliens) a maternal instinct on steroids, Hollywood’s female monsters are — I suspect — just the flip side of Hollywood’s typical gender code. These are Girls Gone Wild, except usually in a bitchy way.

In playing out these narratives of women who’ve let their natural lady-ness take them way too far, I’m guessing The Wasp Woman is a bit of an outlier. Not only does it refuse to turn Janice into a bitch, but there’s no sex, no dangerous lady-temptress luring a man into her web of lies.

What’s next? Depends on availability and information. I’ve been constructing a list that includes the following:

  • Astounding She Monster (1957)
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1960)
  • The Bad Seed (1956)
  • Black Sunday (1960)
  • Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1944)
  • Cat Women of the Moon (1953)
  • Cobra Woman (1944)
  • Devil Dolls (1936)
  • Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
  • Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
  • Gill-Women of Venus, or Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (1968)
  • The Gorgon (1964)
  • Mesa of Lost Women (1953)
  • Queen of Outer Space (1958)
  • The Reptile (1966)
  • She-Wolf of London (1946)
  • Wild Women of Wongo (1958)

I have yet to work out the kinks in my system — after all, I want women who actually turn into monsters, not just sexy vampires or sexy prehistoric women, so some of these titles may have to go. I’m also taking suggestions.

Some advice to all us ladies: go out there and kick your own Bitch Semiotic today. Why, the next thing you know, we’ll have our own Hallmark holiday.